Iran Odyssey Day 12: Esfahan

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Our evening glimpse of the main square in Esfahan had whet our appetites and today we were to discover its full glory. Crossing the Maydan-e Imam Square we are told that it had originally been a parade ground hosting events to entertain Shah Abbas I who watched from a terrace in the Ali Qapu Palace. It was also used as a polo field and the last vestige of this is one set of goal posts – a pair of gleaming white stone bollards.

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Polo match underway in Maydan-e Imam Square. The white bollards are just visible in the foreground. As seen in a small painting I spotted in the Bazaar.

Today, horses still inhabit the square but rather than galloping after a polo ball they charge around the square pulling carriages laden with families. Dodging the flash of the red painted wheel spokes of the carriages, we were herded towards the Ali Qapu Palace on the west side of the square. The chunky brick base of the building gives way to a wonderfully spindly constructed terrace above and the whole wooden superstructure looks to be made from matchsticks in its delicacy. Built in the 16th century during the Safavid period, the building, intended as the ‘gateway to Ali’, was the entrance to the formal palace behind.

Passing through the gateway it is hard to know where to look first. A bewildering array of different textures, warm soft colours and intricate designs draw the eye in different directions and I am, as ever, trying to absorb everything and at the same time capture the intoxicating patterns through my lens.

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The entrance hall to the Ali Qapu Palace

As we climb up through the building the simply decorated side rooms are just as striking as the ornately decorated ones and in fact provide a welcome break on the eyeballs.

We reach the terrace at the top and the view of the Maydan-e Imam square unfolds before us. The elevated view reveals just how immense it is and the wandering families appear as ant-like dots milling amongst the fountains and topiary bushes. The slender wooden columns towered above us and it is a wonder they can support the roof above.

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The delicate wall paintings drew me away from the imposing view and back into the depths of the building. Portraits of Safavid peoples were framed by intricate scenes of the curls, frills and fronds of vegetation in a rather tame and domesticated view of the natural world. Inside the elegant decoration continued in soft hues of browns and blues and was punctuated by the inclusion of exotic birds with flamboyant feathers.

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The domed rooms with their squinches are never endingly pleasing. We descend the spiral stairs and regroup in the square. Once again we avoid the rattle of the carriages and sift our way through the growing crowd as we cross the square to the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque – a gem of Safavid architecture with its creamy coloured dome.

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The bright blue tiled facade dazzles in contrast to the warm browns, beiges and burnt red colours of the Ali Qapu Palace and the intricate moulding above the entrance replicates a design we have seen time and time again. It is like a nest of mini squinches and has a honeycomb appearance that is repeated in some of the alcoves.

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The dark and gloomy narrow passages lead into the main domed sanctuary and from their depths the vast hall comes as a shock to the senses. As I move into the room the blue and yellow tiles seem to dance and the movement is enhanced by the flow of the calligraphy that appears in bands around the room like a score of music.

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The turquoise spiralling cable decoration rise like sticks of candy and lead the eye upwards to the crowning glory: the dome. The effect of the decoration in the room is dynamic yet graceful and the moment you stop moving the dance comes to a halt and the tranquility is overwhelming.

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There are more squinches than you can shake a stick at and the light pierces through the tracery of the ring of windows below the dome. It’s a magnificent space and the low echo of people murmuring is soft and calming. Even the locals stare up with mouth slightly open – it is not just us who look on in wonderment and marvel at its majestic grandeur.

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The dome is what transfixes the gaze. The pattern of ever-decreasing motifs gently guides the viewers now squinting eyes to the central design. The detail is too distant to be appreciated but that I assume was the intention – the representation of the celestial sphere out of reach to mortals.

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Back out in the bright light we pass the fluttering bunting and head towards the Masjid-I Imam mosque that dominates the southern end of the main square.

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BUNTING!!!


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The Masjid-I Imam mosque

Passing through its entrance, once again dripping in mini squinches, we walk under the polished orangey stone lintel. The general push of the queue impatient to enter the mosque is almost enough to thrust you passed the metal doors but it was worth buffering the steady stream of people to linger over the intricate design.

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‘…dripping with squinches’


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Entrance doorway to the Masjid-I Iman mosque


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Exquisite metal doors of the Masjid-I Imam mosque

The familiar tiled colour scheme of blues, greens and yellows, greet you on an an eye-popping scale and the curves and straight lines of the architecture work like an Escher drawing to confuse but nevertheless draw you into the building.

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Entrance hall of the masjid-I Imam mosque


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First real glimpse of the sanctuary in the Masjid-Imam mosque

The group splits up and I take a fairly random route that leads me to the west ivan off the main courtyard and as my eyes adjust to the light I spy a mound of rolled up rugs piled high against the wall. There is something incredibly pleasing about the soft scrolls of the prayer rugs against the rigid tiled walls. I learn later that one of our group had returned to this room, scaled the rug pile and dozed through the early afternoon. I must say it had been a temptation for me at the time.

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Rugs


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Window of one of the side rooms in the Masjid-I Imam mosque

Back into the harsh light of the courtyard I get accosted by a couple who want to take their photograph with me and once the mandatory smiley photo is safely stored they hand me, as way of thanks, a flyer extolling the virtues of the preachings of the Ayatollah. It makes for interesting reading and I maintain the smile courteously, thank them in return and then beat a hasty retreat before I have to engage further on a subject I’m not comfortable with.

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Shadows cast on the floor by the window design in the Masjid-I Imam mosque


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Something incredibly pleasing about the fact the plastic bucket matches the tiles

I sit by the empty ablutions pool and watch the visitors waft in and out of the shady rooms, just taking in the building without rushing around myself. Time passes and I rejoin the group for our next appointment at the Chehel Sotoun Palace.

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Lions and woman relief on the corner of the pool at Chehel Sotoun

The name Chehel Sotoun literally means ‘forty columns’ which at first is a little confusing since there are patently only twenty columns supporting the terrace roof. This deficiency is soon remedied the moment you both step back from and in the literal sense. Viewing the Palace from afar and across the long pool that shimmers in front of it the reflection of the twenty columns of the talar suddenly and pleasingly offers the visitor forty columns in tota. This makes me smile but I wonder how many people leave feeling short-changed or wasted time looking for another set of columns elsewhere on the premises.

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Matchstick columns of the terrace

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Like the matchstick columns of the Ali Qapu Palace, these ridiculously tapered wooden columns soar above us and prop up the most beautiful painted roof. Behind the terrace gives way to to a mirrored portico and the dazzling reflections off the Venetian glass bring light to the inner depths of the building.

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Self portrait in the mirrored portico

Inside there are a series of frescoes of portraits which fill these otherwise empty halls with life and populate them with the graceful and elegant poses of Safavids.

In the next chamber the tempo of the frescoes changes and on one wall the crowded battle scene with elephants charging horses, horses charging people and people charging people and the flash of the sabres overwhelms the onlooker. But the scene is somewhat sanitised and the although the energy of the Battle of Karnal is present only  a few heads have rolled. On the opposite wall is a depiction of the Battle of Chaldiran. Never has war looked so pristine and brightly coloured.

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Battle of Chaldiran. Shah Esmail’s triumph over the Janissary Aga


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Shah Tahmasp I receiving  Homayun from India

Outside, on a side terrace, calm is once more restored and the portraits of embassadors and dignitaries command a serene presence.

It has been a morning of visual explosions and tranquil experiences and lunch comes as a welcome break though in truth I’m not convinced I have truly absorbed everything I have seen. We drop down into the depths of a basement restaurant where an elaborate preparation of a meat soup is performed with dedication at the table.

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Heading into the Bazaar

We are left to our own devices after lunch and a group of us immerse ourselves into the frenetic activity in the bazaar. Rugs are pulled out, put back, new ones pulled out and old ones returned to. The shop keepers energy is unfailing though they begin to show the small cracks of wanting to close the deal. The shoppers meanwhile are happy to discuss, admire the purchases of others, pull out more rugs to look at and inevitably chose the ones they had originally been drawn to. I sit and watch and occasionally get covered in a slumped pile of unwanted rugs as the process continues. There is much to and fro-ing over the price and while the customers haggle the shopkeepers act out the drama by the wearing pained expressions as if they are being robbed. In the end a price is agreed and everyone feels the theatre of the sale has been rewarded. But the shop keepers are experts and are well versed in giving the customer the sense of satisfaction at no loss to themselves. It’s a performance well worth being in the audience for.

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Warm evening light on the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque

I meet one of the group a little later to capture the evening light in the main squarethrough my lens. I admit that my companion makes more of an effort than I do – borrowing a plastic stool from a shop in the bazaar, he heads to the centre of the square and stands on it in order to get an elevated view much to the bewilderment of the locals. I remain content to use the height afforded to me by my own legs and happily catch the evening light as it hits the dome of the mosque. When he later mounts the metal frame of a dustbin I relent and pass him up my camera and gladly reap the benefit of his shot without the need to cause ripples of laughter from the onlookers.

DSC_6651As the sun sets, we find a tea house, order the local delicacy and sit in a small, dimly lit courtyard awaiting our beverage. It arrives. Now, I’m not an habitual drinker of tea but the contents of my cup look anything but like a cup of tea and resemble a spring meadow with what looked like a cherry tomato bobbing in the centre. A sugar stick is provided but even after dunking it I can safely say it tasted like chomping on flowers rather than tea leaves. Maybe I should stick to coffee…

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Tea. Apparently.

Iran Odyssey Day 11: Shiraz to Esfahan

(Or is it Isfahan? Nobody seems to be able to proffer a convincing argument for either so I’m going by the spelling used on my map and guide book)

Sassanid relief of Ardeshir I and his investiture inscription

Sassanid relief of waggy-fingered Ardeshir I and his investiture inscription

Our day starts with a surprise stop at a rocky outcrop (Naghsh-e Rajab) on the opposite side of the valley to the royal tombs that we had seen the day before. One of the group members had read that there were more reliefs in amongst these boulders and blissfully we were due to pass them on our way to Pasargadae. A short walk brought us to an amazing sight. In touchable distance there were a series of vivid Sassanid reliefs depicting Shapur I on horseback in various stages of his investiture. Shown in one relief alongside the God, Ahura Mazda, and jointly clasping the ring of authority, Sharpur I is no shrinking violet when it comes to advertising his power and rank.

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Shapur I on horseback followed by his entourage

The sun picks out his clump of curls and his distinctive crown in majestic form on the facing relief as he sits atop a horse in slightly deeper relief than the attendants queuing behind him, which include his sons and nobles, serving to emphasise his commanding presence and their subordination.

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Swords

Shapur I's entourage including his sons and noblemen

Shapur I’s entourage including his sons and noblemen

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Entourage with good hair

It was thrilling to see this set of reliefs at close hand and witness the details of inscriptions, the folds of clothing, and the decoration of the sheathed swords. Contrasting with the crisp detail was the faceless protagonist – Shapur’s face has been deliberately hacked out and disfigured leaving only a droplet earring falling from his ear as a recognisable feature.

Damnatio memoriae on the face of Shapur I

Damnatio memoriae on the face of Shapur I. Brilliant crown and wavy tassels too

We all clamber back onto the bus and take one last look at the crucifix shadows cast on the royal tombs on the far side of the valley before driving towards Pasargadae.

“O man, I am Cyrus who founded the empire of the Persians and was king of Asia. Grudge me not this monument”

There is no sign of this inscription as told to us by Strabo but its absence does not diminish the sentiment. It’s actually impossible to begrudge Cyrus the Great his truly humble tomb in which he was buried in 529 BC .

Cyrus the Greats simple tomb

Cyrus the Great’s simple tomb at Pasargadae

Set on a low stepped base, the small pitched roof tomb stands proud on the plain. I’m just bowled over by its simplicity and power it imbues. The swirl of people moving around its base distract me so I push my camera to my eye and use the viewfinder to frame just the blocks of warm sandy stone against the backdrop of mountains and the soft puffy white cloud against the blue sky. I instantly feel alone with Cyrus. I’m moved beyond words. I refrain from releasing the shutter and just hold the pose to soak in the view through an admittedly watery eye. Just me and Cyrus. The weight of that moment still hangs with me.

Cyrus Cylinder from the British Museum

Cyrus Cylinder from the British Museum


[small update: I happened to be in the British Museum after my Iran trip so of course headed to see the Cyrus Cylinder. It was late opening at the BM and I found myself in the Iran gallery at 8pm. This time it was just me, Cyrus… and my mother. After having seen his tomb it was similarly humbling to see this small artefact in real life]


From behind me I suddenly hear our guide and I lower my camera and rejoin the group. The guide is reading out a translation of the inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder. Held at the British Museum from soon after the moment of its discovery in 1879, this small barrel-shaped clay object is heralded as the ‘first declaration of human rights’. It also includes a rather immodest declaration that Cyrus was “King of the universe” – a statement more commonly uttered from the lips of small boys with a tea towel tied around their necks as a cape and a sword made of celotaped-together loo rolls. But I’ll forgive him and I certainly won’t grudge him his poignant, moving place of rest.

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We hop on a battered and dusty bus that drives us to an excavated area some distance from the tomb. On the horizon I just make out what looks to be the sheer edge of a stoney escarpment but is in fact made of hewn stone and I learn that the citadel, known as Takht-e Madar-e Soleyman (Throne of Soloman’s Mother) was once located here until its destruction by the Seleucids in 280BC. We navigate our way around the excavated columned room that is described as a residential palace.

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Columned hall

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Relief inside the doorway to the columned residential palace. Small hole may denote where gem stones once were.

In one corner, a rectangular column stands tall and above the scrawls of graffiti are two unmistakable wedge-shaped lines of cuneiform and below them, two other lines of text. I have gauged on this trip that the three languages (Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian cuneiform) of the Achaemenid Empire are used for grand declarations and although I am not professing to being fluent in any of them I will admit I am getting familiar with the recurring shape of the opening words “I am Cyrus…” in each of the three languages.

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“I am Cyrus the King…”

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I will confess that so drawn was I to the archaeology that I singularly failed to digest what the plan was for our group at this site so I presumed that we would visit the other excavated areas dotted around. My failure was my undoing. I rejoined the group to discover that was our visit over and we were to head to Esfahan. I looked around in a panic. There was still plenty to see and I had miscalculated, or rather, if I had known time was so short I would have dashed between sites. I look longingly at the tantalising glimpses of gateways, columns and towers that shimmer in the distance knowing I won’t see them up close. I feel a sudden pang of sadness. I’m here, in Iran, at this great site and I’m being dragged away. I just need a few minutes to… They are empty thoughts and I board the bus that slowly and bumpily takes me away from them and my last glimpse of the site is through the dust cloud thrown up by the bus.

I’m not entirely sure why this all digs as deep as it does but I shed a tear or two on the bus and brushed them away with the back of my hand. I think it was because I was unexpectedly so moved by the tomb and I have a growing admiration for the Achaemenid dynasty and I just feel robbed of the chance to see more of their world. As we get off the bus a young and lean Iranian boy strides up alongside me, looks up at me and asks why was I crying. I’m somewhat startled by the direct question from a complete stranger and as I struggle to find an answer he asks me whether I am crying for his country. This causes another tear to roll down my face as I now feel embarrassed for the selfish reasons why I had been caught up in a teary moment and I feel guilty for not crying for his country. I wipe away the tear, tell him his country and people are wonderful and that I’m not really crying, it’s just that I have a cold. How ridiculously British am I? Possibly the lamest excuse/lie I have ever mustered in my lifetime but at least I do have have a cold. Just not a tear-inducing one. He smiles a broad smile and drops back to rejoin his family. I continue towards the exit a little stunned by the encounter and appalled by my feeble behaviour. My visit to Cyrus’ tomb has been in many ways an emotional and memorable experience.

Back on board the bus I pull myself together and listen to my audiobook while staring out of the window and watch the Zagros mountains fall away behind us as we approach Esfahan.

Leaving the peaks of the Zagros mountains behind

Leaving the peaks of the Zagros mountains behind

We arrive early in the evening and the sun is just hovering above the skyline so a few of us decide to walk to the famous main square – the Maydan-e Imam. Five times bigger than St Mark’s square in Venice, the Maydan-e Imam is nothing but imposing as you enter through one of its gateways. Its scale dwarfs everything and everyone that occupies its space.

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View of the main square (Maydan-e Imam) in Esfahan from the terrace of the Ali Quapu Palace

The string of arcaded shops that enclose the space are low in height and their flat roofline is only interrupted by the bubble shape of the mosque domes, the vertical streaks of the minarets and the blocky outline of a palace. Behind, the soft dark pink shades of the mountains are the only thing that ruffle the dusk sky. It’s quite an introduction to this city.

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The mosque of Masjed-e Imam at one end of the public square with the mountains as a backdrop

Iran Odyssey Day 10: Shiraz

  

We drive south of Shiraz for what is meant to be a dramatic drive through the hills and passed the salt lakes. It is a dramatic drive, namely for the number of accidents we encounter on the road. It has been raining and apparently the wet roads that wind between the sharp mountain peaks are a challenge to the brakes of Iranian cars. With a perilous drop onto rocky outcrops, the drivers of the cars involved in these incidents have had lucky escapes though the same cannot always be said of their cargoes – a road strewn with fresh vegetables was a tell-tale sign. The traffic snakes through the pass and we wait patiently. The inclement weather certainly adds atmosphere to the drive and from the gloom looms a Sassanid fortress known as Qaleh Dokhtar (Daughter’s Castle) on the crest of a peak.

 

Daughter's Castle

Daughter’s Castle


We make a brief stop just down the road to peer across a valley at a giant relief carved into the rock face. With low grey cloud and no sign of the sun it is hard to make out the detail without glints and shadows but the scene appears to be a tangle of men, lances and horses. Later, analysising the efforts of my zoom lens, I make out the figures of Ardashir and Artabanus V in a clash between the Parthian and Sassanid leaders.

The Sassanid relief thanks to a telephoto lens

The Sassanid relief thanks to a telephoto lens


The drive drops us down into the plain beyond the Zagros mountains. A stone fortress – a Sassanid Palace – rises from the plain as we walk from the bus up the road. We pass a series of small shops selling some tourist tat and the display of the Frankenstein-looking dolls with wild hairlines and mad staring eyes is a little perturbing.

There are reasons why I didn't buy all my friends gifts from Iran.

There are reasons why I didn’t buy all my friends gifts from Iran.


We reach the Sassanid palace and inside are presented with a complex of domed rooms and a small courtyard. The domes are neatly assembled in layers of small stones and light pours in through an oculus reminiscent of the Pantheon. Squinches are mentioned again. A lot.

Oculus and squinch

Oculus and squinch


I wander through the grounds, under its arches and through its cool spaces while the majority of the group dissect and analyse its architecture and construction. I occasionally catch snippets of their discussion. It is a masterclass in piecing together the visible remains, in interpolating the evidence and in the understanding of spaces. It’s a joy to hear the interpretations and discussions and reminds me of the animated discussions that took place between the academics I travelled with in Algeria.

Arches upon arches

Arches upon arches

Day trippers

Day trippers at the Sassanid Palace


We grab lunch in the small car park opposite the site and are descended upon by a friendly bunch of nomadic travellers who find it endlessly amusing to get some of the group to wear their hats and have photos taken. We find it endlessly amusing too, to be fair.

After lunch we drive to Gur that is purported as being the Sassanid city, Ardashir Kurreh, (The Glory of Ardashir). Built in a circular form, all that remains is the spine of a stone tower marking the centre of the urban area. As we drive around the site it is soon clear that enclosing the site there are circular ramparts and a deep ditch pierced in various places by gateways. Immediately casting me back to a geography lesson at school learning about Von Thünen’s concentric rings of urban development, the footprint that this ancient city has left in the landscape is ridiculously impressive – from the ground it is visible but from the air the scale of this city bursts off the map.

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Google Earth image of the Sassanid city of Gur.


Walking across the site, the cultivated fields in the outer circle give way to stoney terrain in the inner circle and the traces of walls and buildings just breach the ground surface. As we reach the centre, the tower lours over us and seems to be a solid mass of stone.

Walking into town

Walking into town


Beyond the tower the group fragments and each wanders at their own pace amongst the jumble of stones and mounds that represent the vestiges of the ancient city centre. It’s a very suggestive site and soon we find a building built of large hewn blocks of stone, some of which have toppled like a long abandoned game of Jenga.

Toppled blocks and the Zargos Mountains

Toppled blocks and the Zagros Mountains


The Zagros Mountains are never far away and the swirl of their geological banding seems magnified in the afternoon light, providing an unreal backdrop to the site. We clamber amongst the stones and discussions are raised of what work could be done at the site to understand it better. My ears are pricked. As I meander my way back to the bus with one member of the group we talk enthusiastically about doing a survey here. One day…

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Looking back towards the centre of Gur.


Back in Shiraz, having thankfully witnessed no further road disasters, we are herded along the streets to the bazaar where we break off into smaller groups to attempt entry in the bustling covered passages. Shop stalls spill out into the walkway and the place is teeming with people and from every other doorway booms some Iranian music. The smell is of spices, fresh linen and armpits. Jostled along in the general sway of people we pass cloth sellers with the most dazzling of gaudy materials; old junk shops with glass cabinets filled with a jumble of metal plates, bowls, random furniture fittings and locks of all shapes and sizes; the ubiquitous carpet sellers with their wears draped from metal hooks, and scarf sellers with a bright array of head wear. We all unwittingly converge on a spice seller whose piles of coloured spices has enticed us in. Suddenly the riyals (the Iranian currency that has so many zeros that even the most frugal of visitors is a millionaire) start spilling from the wallets of my fellow travellers and are being traded for nutmeg, pepper, mint and cinnamon sticks.

Spicy

Spices


We progress further into the depths of the bazaar and come to a small courtyard lit by lights from underneath the shop awnings and from the second storey of the building that encloses this idyllic space. Jewellery is being sought and more money is changing hands in a convivial atmosphere and the haggling is done with smiles and good grace.

Shiraz bazaar

Shiraz bazaar


The evening meal is taken in the hotel next to our own and there is a general agreement as to the hideous tacky decor of each of our hotel rooms and an undercurrent of grumbling towards the unnecessary extra charge for wifi. One day, these details will probably be forgotten and all that will remain is the memories of the wonders we saw during day. Tomorrow we leave for Esfahan and an on route stop at Cyrus the Great’s tomb. I am consumed by this thought as I drift off to sleep.

Iran Odyssey Day 9: Shiraz (Persepolis)

It’s Easter Day.

 

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Reliefs at Persepolis

Today is the day I’ve been looking forward to the most. The chance to see Persepolis played a pivotal role in the decision to come on the trip in the first place. The news that we are to stop at some tombs on route only serves to heighten the anticipation. Nothing prepared me for what I was about to see. Reminding me immediately of Petra, these four vast rock-cut tombs mounted high on the escarpment face are intimidatingly grand. Naqsh-e Rostam is the site of four royal tombs. Framed by an overall cross shape each tomb is entered through a small central doorway, which is in turn framed by bas-relief architectural detail. At the top of the cross is the depiction of the deceased and in the hazy morning light I pick out Darius I, Darius II, Artaxerxes I and Xerxes I (with the help of a guidebook). Epic names conjured from history; almost too legendary to believe I am staring at their final resting place.

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The rock cut tombs of (L to R) Darius II (d. 405 BC), Artaxerxes I (d. 424 BC), Darius the Great (d. 486 BC)

Thoughtfully, someone has constructed a long mound running parallel to the tombs so you can scramble up and be treated to a head on view of the tombs. A definite bonus for aesthetics but also from a personal point of view, as a woman having to wear a head scarf on a blustery day it really helps not having to tilt your head back to try and take a photo and risk exposing your head as a rogue gust of wind catches you unawares. It becomes something of an obsession, believe me. And one I won’t miss. At all.

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Unlike in Petra, there are no obvious scaffold holes. I start to imagine some sort of wooden scaffold system propped up against the rock face that would allow the stone masons to chisel away at such great heights. The process must have been visible for some distance and I want to imagine the fever of excitement amongst the locals when the first tomb was finished and the scaffolding removed. I think the sun or altitude may be getting to me but it’s quite fun to inject a little life into a place.

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Panorama of the 4 royal tombs and the Sassanid tower. Spectacular.

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Shapur I and his amazing hair

Below each of the cruciform tombs is a dramatic relief. Carved later, in the Sassanid period and incredibly from where the name of the site derives, these bas-reliefs showing battle and jousting scenes and royal and religious depictions. Though in stone there is such life in these reliefs. The exaggerated curls of the men’s hair, the swish of a horse’s tail and the flow of a garment. I momentarily lose the group as I have lagged behind happily snapping away (and day dreaming about days gone by) and I find them slightly down the path gazing up at yet more Sassanid reliefs.

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Sassanid relief of Shapur I on horseback holding captive the Roman Emperor Valerian while Philip the Arab kneels and sues for peace

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Shapur I and the Zoroastrian God, Ahura Mazda, holding the ring of authority. Sassanid relief.

At the foot of the rock face, a solitary square stone tower rises from a deep trench. Its sides are pitted with small rectangular indentations and though the tower is Achaemeneid the repetative regularity of the decoration reminds me of the pattern of tiny windows in some Fascist architecture. I fear I may be alone in thinking this.

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Sassanid tower

After half an hour I find my jaw aching, I have literally been wandering around with a dropped jaw. If this has a physical affect on me, What is Persepolis going to do to me?

Next stop...

Next stop…

“I am Darius, the great King, King of Kings, King of the lands, King upon this earth…”

And so starts a translation of the Elamite inscription of the foundation stone at the original entrance to Persepolis. Darius, a man of overwhelming modesty, evidently.

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The inviting walls of Persepolis

Climbing up the stairs past the regular cyclopean walls of Persepolis, an entrance added later by Xerxes, brings me face to face with two winged bulls. These are the first I’ve ever seen in situ and quite frankly I’m swept away. I am totally transfixed to the point that the zillions of Iranian holiday makers that are swarming up the stairs, waving selfie sticks too close to my head and battling for pole position to see the majestic Gate of All Lands (Gate of Xerxes) melt away and it’s just me and what is left of the constant gaze of the hacked out faces of the winged bulls.

The winged bulls at the later entrance to Persepolis

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Their presence is commanding and mesmerising and if the effect was to awe then it succeeded. I stood there for longer than I had intended. We had already negotiated more time in Persepolis than had been allotted and I knew I would need every second of it. In a hasty panic I dash from one end of the gate to the other and unconciously become entranced with the mirror pair of wing bulls.

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I snap out of it, start photographing like a crazed lunatic and then dash to the next monument – The Unfinished Gate. At first the outline is not clear but soon the raw, unfinished silhouettes of two bulls heads loom above me.

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One of the more ‘finished’ bulls heads

I feel the jostle of people around me and move on. The population of Iran has basically descended on this site and my dream of wandering leisurely through the ruins stopping to admire, take photos and wander on evaporates. I need a game plan. My strategy is now to dash to empty spots. People tend to move in herds so as they clear out I step in. This does entail not quite seeing the site in a logical pattern but needs must. But please do note that on the inside, this approach is killing me.

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Just passing the griffin headed capitals

My first empty spot finds me in the doorway of the Throne Hall. Here the wide doors jambs in the flat light seem of no interest (probably hence the vacant spot) but up close the outlines of rows of men who form part of the audience entourage of the King. The crispness of some of the surviving profiles of the faces leave me dumbstruck. Others are pitted and have seen the ravages of weathering. In their defence, this site was allegedly torched by Alexander the Great so we’re in fact lucky to have as much as we do survive unscathed.

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I continue to dart around the site in a random fashion and my eyes are feasting on the quantity and richness of the reliefs that cover most of the liminal spaces. Throne bearers, guards and audiences rally around the throned King at the top of the relief. In other instances men daintily position a little umbrella canopy over the King’s head. Curls of beards are abound. It’s a wonderful visual labyrinth of people and decorative motifs. There is some (actually a lot) of repetition in the reliefs but this sucks you in and you start believing you can only spot a couple of variations but yet some elements are unique.

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The overall visual impact of the most famous structure in Persepolis—the Apadana (the Audience Palace)—is somewhat marred by the numbers of chador-clad women, short-sleeved shirted men and the odd tourist that are flocking through the site and gaps are hard to come by. But patience prevails and small openings in the veil of people arise and I nudge in. I find myself face to face with figures I’ve only seen in books; depictions familiar to so many people even if their origin or context is not known by the observer. The lines of profiled figures with their large almond eyes, pointy beards and bundle of neat, tight curls of hair arranged around their faces. Standing in front of them now is extraordinary and a privilege.

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Rows and rows of attendants.

While the figures are familiar the other details are completely unfamiliar. Serenely carved trees break up the lines of people and animals and carts punctuate the orderly scene of delegations bringing gifts to King Xerxes.

Of course, people who know me, will appreciate my delight at spotting some camels in the queue of stone delegates.

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Camel!

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I continue around the site in a hurry and find one of my group sitting on a bench, smoking and gazing at one of the decorated sides of the Apadana. With eyes fixed on the reliefs I am just that bit envious of the time he is taking to sit and soak up the splendour of the monument. Perhaps I will regret not taking the time to absorb my surroundings but after a brief salutation I scamper on because there is still much to see.

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Bulls head on a gateway at Persepolis

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The pleasing curves of a column base

Inside the Apadana, the scale of the building is hard to grasp. It occupies a large space but only once you accept that the few standing towering columns represent only a fraction of those that would have supported the roof do you get an idea of the monumentality. It apparently could host 10,000 people. Staggering. The bulbous column bases lay strewn amongst the remnants of the fallen columns and depictions of snarling leonine faces litter the ground. Despite lying in ruins the building is majestic.

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Snarling lion in the Apadana

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I make my way towards Darius’ Palace where I fight my way to the front of the crowds to take a few photos for an acquaintance on Twitter who has expressly asked for some detailed shots of a relief, actually a missing part of the relief, for her studies. I am happy to oblige but without being able to explore the inside of the palace I understand little of its grandeur. This is the case for most of the rest of the site. Views across buildings but prohibited entry means tantalising glimpses from afar of reliefs carved in doorways and a giant puzzle of fallen stones.

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Relief and inscription on the side of Darius’ Palace

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Umbrella bearers spotted on the inside of a doorway at Persepolis

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Time is against me and I vow, as I stare up at a relief of the personification of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god, that I shall return without the crowds and without the time constraint.

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Ahura Mazda – the personification of the Zoroastrian God.

That makes leaving the site somewhat easier. I know I haven’t taken it all in. I know that I have barely digested that I have been to Persepolis, that I have stood looking in awe at buildings that legends like Darius and Xerxes had built and that once thrived with ancient Persian life. That the site today was crowded helped with reimagining that last element at least.

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Leaving Persepolis

Eyes dry from the dust and from staring through my lens, I take a last look back at the mighty walls of Perseoplis before leaving.

We made a short stop at the tomb of Hafeziah, a 14th century poet now entombed under a 20th century octangonal kiosk. Hafeziah was famed for knowing the Quran by heart as a small child and wrote poetry about love. Our guide reads a translation of one of his works but we are moved more by hearing the poem in Persian – the sonorous tones of Farsi have a far more powerful resonance in such circumstances.

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Tile in the mosque

I still feel a little wrenched from Persepolis but the mosque we then visit is a gentle reminder that I’m here to see more than just archaeology. The shades and tones of pink of the Nasir-al Molk Mosque are a refreshing change from the hues of blue and green we have seen so far. Patterns, textures and intricate decorations that should clash, don’t – they blend into a sea of shapes, forms and colours that play off each other and are clean and dazzling on the eye after the dust of Persepolis.

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Ornate interior decoration of the Nasir-al Molk Mosque

I settle in my hotel room before dinner, scooting through my photos and reading up on the details of Persepolis that had flashed past me earlier that day. I’m reminded of the tombs we saw in the morning that had surprised and staggered me beyond words and I become wonderfully fascinated by the Achaemenids and have a rush to learn more.

 

Iran Odyssey Day 8: Kerman to Shiraz

 

The drive to the foothills of the Zagros Montains

 

Having headed southeast since our arrival we turn southwest for our next stop in Shiraz.

After a substantial drive we arrive in Neyriz and stop to look at its 10th century mosque (Masjed-e Jame) that is built over an earlier fire temple.

 

Neyriz mosque. Mihrab not quite aligned to Mecca

 

The orientation of the open room (ivan), which dictates the direction of Mecca, is at odds with with alignment of the prayer carpets, which run obliquely across the floor. Cleverly, it is deduced by one of the group that the mosque must have been built directly over the remains of the temple and the new occupiers had simply adapted the furnishings in the direction of Mecca.

 

Box of turbah (Shia prayer stones)

The landscape becomes more dramatic as we pass over some foot hills. The land is cultivated with fig trees so we stop to buy some from a roadside shack. Everyone races to the counter and searches for the figs and fail to see that the piles and piles of little nut-looking objects that fill the shop front are in fact dried figs.

 

Tiny dried figs

As we drop down into the valley below I get my first real view of the legendary Zagros Mountain range. They form an imposing outline against the sky, and I’m instantly reminded of a passage in the book I am reading* that talks of Assyrians scaling their perilous contours in order to attack the peoples who inhabit them. Seeing them now, lit by the evening sun, is a most vivid way to remember the words of a book.

 

The eastern edge of the Zagros Montains

 

We dive to a small hunting lodge at Savistan of dubious date – some say Sassanid others say early Islamic. Either way, it is a pleasing building with domed rooms, narrow corridors and a charming courtyard

 

Savistan lodge

As we drive toward Shiraz white streaks appear in the valley bottom and these are the salt lakes. As we draw nearer their banks we see lines of people wading out into the opaque depths of the water. I have no idea what they are doing but they are framed beautifully in the reflection of the hills.

The salt waders

 

Entering Shiraz is like entering Las Vegas. After all the small country dwellings and shacks we have passed the wide, tree-lined boulevards with neon signs and three lanes of traffic come as a shocking contrast. My romantic vision of Shiraz has evaporated into a blur of high rise buildings, beeping cars and glitzy facades. And there is no sign of wine.

*The brilliant ‘Persian Fire’ by the inimitable Tom Holland.

Iran Odyssey Day 7: Kerman

 

Snowy mountains

After the long drive yesterday it’s quite a relief to have a short trip to our first site. The bus takes us passed some snow capped mountains and trundles southeast toward Afghanistan. The road checks come more frequently and there is noticeably more activity at these points than others we’ve passed. Drug sniffer dogs, the only dogs that are considered honourable in Iran, sit to attention and there is a parking lot on one side dotted with impounded vehicles. The drugs trade from Afghanistan would appear to be rife.

 

Gateway to Rāyen citadal

 

We are met at Mahan by the sight of the towering mudbrick city walls and an imposing round tower of the Rāyen citadel. It is a Sassanid Citadel and dates to the 5th century AD. The smooth finish of the mudbrick construction coupled with the height of the walls renders the citadel well and truly fortified. We enter through the only gate and are presented with a maze-like world of walls that look like melted chocolate has been unsparingly drizzled over them.

 

View acoss the eastern half of the citadel

Their smooth rounded appearance makes me feel like I have entered the desert residence of the Telly-Tubbies: child-friendly with no sharp edges.
This effect is the consequence of severe conservation. Worrying that the mudbrick walls which lie beneath this coating of modern mud mixed with dried vegetation, the decision was made to completely cover the walls and essentially, make everything look like a chocolate igloo.

 

Melted chocolate Telly-Tubby Land

 

We wander through the narrow streets and duck into some of the houses, termed ‘common houses’. Most houses are quite modest but the squinch count goes up ten-fold. Before this trip I had probably heard the word ‘squinch’ twice in my life. I have now heard it every day for seven days. It’s a delightful word and refers to the architectural element that is the awkward cornering in order to accommodate and join a round dome on to a square-shaped room.

 

One of the imposing towers at Rāyen citadel

Continuing around the citadel I weave in and out of the Telly-Tubby village and find parts less conserved than others. At last I am able to see the crumbly, mealy fabric of the original mudbrick dwellings. In one of the dwellings a fire oven is burning and my nose draws me into a back room to find the rest of the group munching on fresh flat bread made by sticking the bread to the roof of the oven. The smell was intoxicating and boy did the lightly seasoned bread taste good.

Happily all still chewing on bread we head back to the bus but not without a detour to see the ramparts from the outside. Wow. The colossal building programme is impressive. Once again, like at Na’in, a huge ditch acts as a quarry for the building material and re-enforces the citadel’s fortifications.

 

The ramparts of Rāyen Citadel

 

Behind us is a modern cemetery and on the wall of a building three faces stare out at us in a mural. What has struck me and every one of my travel companions, is that in every town there are similar faces on placards, posters, and paintings. In Iran they are called ‘martyrs’. They are the casualties of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and in every public space you are reminded who fought and died on the Iranian side. The message is never to forget them and since their faces, with dated hair styles and the occasional heavy-rimmed glasses, stare out at you from every corner, it becomes impossible to do so.

 

Portraits of the war dead

We stop briefly at a garden set behind thick walls in the middle of the desert scrubland. Nothing for miles and then this oasis of water, pines and flowers emerges as a spot of green incased within brown mudbrick. Over lunch we chat to some of the locals and a young girl visibly swoons when I tell her I am from London. Normally the next question would be what do I think of Iran but she is too excited to ask whether I know the boy band One Direction to care about my thoughts on her country. Sadly I have to admit to knowing nothing about them. I am officially old.
Plans are afoot to go off-itinerary and visit the Archaeological Museum in Kerman but not before a fleeting visit to the The Shah Nematollah Vali Shrine. In a small room called the ‘room of 40 nights’ (‘Chelleh Khaneh’) every inch of the walls has been decorated with writings of the Qu’ran and Persian poetry.

Writing on the ceiling in the room of 40 nights

 

 

Wall of the room of the 40 nights

 

The secret gem of Kerman is its archaeological museum housed in a once private residence belonging to the Harandi family. Inside the house has been beautifully restored and the cabinets are filled with the most delectable of artefacts from the 4th millennium BC until the Islamic period.

It’s a small museum but it is evident that love and attention has been paid to the presentation. I’m immediately charmed by it and peering into the cabinets I am rewarded further by some exquisite objects. Just as in Tehran museum, I am struck by the ingenuity, creativity and quality of even the earliest artefacts. From the lovely soft grey pots with perky goats painted on, to a proud bird of prey puffing out its chest, to the bronze plate with a lion in relief – every case is a delight. There are patterns and forms I’ve simply never seen before and I am thoroughly entranced.


Artefacts from the Archaeology Museum , Kerman

 

The main attraction presides over the top of the stairs: a bronze lion from the Sassanid period.

 

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It stands with a snarling face, a wrinkled nose and a tongue lolling out of its mouth. The detail is magnificent and each tiny hole for a whisker has been individually imprinted into the surface of the metal.
Tomorrow is the drive to Shiraz – a place name that conjures up thoughts of… well, wine mainly.

Iran Odyssey Day 6: Yazd to Kerman

Up early and we all board the bus anticipating a day of much sitting and staring through the windows. We anticipated well. The group are in a lovely rhythm of knowing which seat is theirs but there is a decent amount of seat hopping in order to have discussions, share guide books, unfold maps, share peanuts and decide which music should be played. It’s a lovely atmosphere and I shuffle between catching up on writing this, listening to audiobooks on Persia and watching the peaks of the mountains and the desert scrub flash by.

The road traces the course of a spindly mountain chain that is proving impossible to find the name of. Normally these details wouldn’t worry me but when you spent the best part of a day in the presence of a
geological feature it feels right to know its name at least.

More mountains

Hours pass and we arrive in Kerman. The hotel is owned by two brothers who look like the inspiration behind the animated Mario Brothers. we drive into the centre and are greeted with the hustle and bustle of life in a covered bazaar – Bazaar Bazorg. It’s rather pleasant to witness a place pulsing with life after a day of staring at a landscape where life has barely taken a foothold.

Roof of the bazaar

The covered market opens up into a huge square with a colonnaded portico on two sides. After some pressing hat purchasing we are led to a small staircase under a niche. Looking up is such a treat. The sides of the ornate niche are decorated with a paintings of animals and people. It is a relatively recent painting but has the dusty faded air of being older. The animals look like they have been plucked from the marginalia of a medieval manuscript – grimacing guilty looking rabbits, naughty monkeys and a host of animals you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. There is, to my delight, a sultry caravan of camels seemingly minding their own business as they continually trek along the bottom edge of the niche.

 

Fabulously decorated niche at entrance to the hamam

Camels!

The building is a 17th century bath house (hamam) and houses an ethnographic museum dedicated to the art of bathing. Diving into the depths of the baths, the flooring and decorative elements in a beautiful translucent green stone with veins of red coursing through it, are the first things to catch my eye.

 

Bird decoration on the green stone in the historic hamam

The second are rather eerie manikins that occupy the rooms branching off the central court. All in poses that represent the social function of the baths but all are silent and emit nothing of the atmosphere of the establishment. Luckily the place is brimming with visitors so there is an echoey hum that rings through the complex and brings it to life.

 

Inside the hamam with spooky manikins

Across the main square there is a ‘caravanserai’ – an overnight rest stop intended for travellers and their pack animals on the trade route. Arranged around a central courtyard the buildings were divided into small units that would provide the travellers needs.

 

Door to the caravanserai

Continuing through the bazaar, the tea-drinkers amongst us are sated by a visit to another historic hamam that has been converted into a tea room. The Iranians are gently curious people and I engage in conversation with someone from Hamedan which was formerly Ecbatana, the capital of the Medes and where a palace once stood that was supposedly painted in many colours and partly covered with plates of silver and gold. The locals ask where you are from and what you think of Iran. They seem very preoccupied with what visitors think of their country. Many fear that foreigners think Iran has a bad reputation and the people are ill-thought of. This breaks my heart and I do all I can to reassure them that this is not the case. Privately I feel guilty because I think back to the 80s news reports and my thought that Iran looked like the most dangerous place on Earth. It didn’t have a great reputation to a teenage me but I’m here because things change and certainly my opinion has.